according to figures released by Nielsen Online, Facebook saw it's number of users fall 5% to 8.5 million in January from 8.9 million in December, the first drop in user numbers since July 2006 when Nielsen began compiling data on the site.
many have been quick to announce the beginning of the end for the social networking site. Nic Howell, deputy editor of New Media Age, has stated that the site is no longer as popular among its core audience of young people, commenting:
"Social networking is as much about who isn't on the site as who is - when Tory MPs and major corporations start profiles on Facebook, its brand is devalued, driving its core user base into the arms of newer and more credible alternatives," he said.
there's no doubt that this exclusivity factor has played a role in the plateauing of Facebook's usage, and to that I'd add the plethora of requests and forced applications it's users receive, as well as the hack-handed nature of advertising on the site... in June last year I commented that:
"you can try putting an ad on facebook, but I wouldn't recommend it; facebook is a place and space for friends, and a pushed media impact from a keen brand is an invasion - unless a brand suceeds in rewarding my just for watching it (for example Virgin Media feeding me live Big Brother updates, rather than a banner asking me to sign up now)..." full post here
as could have been predicted, I've since then seen more banners on Facebook than at a Mardi Gras parade. but all that aside, does this really mean an inevitable spiral in the popularity of the social networking site? arguably not. we're perhaps more likely witnessing the third phase of Gartner's Hype Cycle, the Trough of Disillusionment, in which technologies fail to meet expectations and quickly become unfashionable. Consequently, the press usually abandons the topic and the technology. sound familiar?
image source: Jeremy Kemp
this would arguably explain why smaller (and relatively newer) social networks continue to see growth - they still find themselves in the post-Trigger growth phase.
so be braced for lots of Facebook and Social networking bashing over the course of 2008. Mediation predicts that plateau will be reached at some point in the future, with a smaller but more loyal user-base at it's core.
one last plea to advertisers; we are fueling the trough by using Facebook and it's counterparts for broadcast banner advertising. we need to be better than that... how can a brand's presence enhance and complement a user experience? if it can't, it shouldn't be there.